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Changing structural racism: Starting at the bottom

For anyone trying to break the glass ceiling for ethnic minorities in senior roles, you have to be strong-willed, passionate and prepared to tackle the barriers people and organisations will erect

Companies need to work harder to ensure senior leadership and management in any business is more diverse, but the problem of racism in the tax sector needs to be dealt with at the points of university education and the first job.

Anti-racist protests in the US and worldwide have brought attention to a global problem. While university data obtained by ITR shows a diverse range of people are studying tax law, the numbers are far from equal across law schools. Moreover, it is not so easy to obtain numbers to determine if graduates are then hitting barriers when securing their first jobs.

“Discrimination also happens during the college/university level, in terms of finding internship as an example, and more importantly when it comes to finding the first [job] opportunities,” said one EU-based in-house senior tax professional who is from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community.

Figures from Queen Mary University in London, obtained under a freedom of information request by ITR, show that out of an estimated 280 students studying tax law between 2015 and 2020, two thirds were non-white, while 12 did not specify their ethnicity. Although this is positive, the New York University’s standard 509 disclosures to the American Bar Association suggest nothing has changed in the past five years.

In 2011, out of 1,464 students, less than a third of all law students (373) were from a minority ethnic background, while 240 did not provide details of their ethnicity. In comparison, the 2019 figures show similar numbers, although the number of students has increased. Out of 1,379 student, 414 were from a minority ethnic background, 816 were white, 28 did not declare their ethnicity and 121 were classed as non-residents.

JD enrolment and ethnicity - New York University


 Number of full time students - 2011

Number of full time students - 2019

Hispanics of any race



American Indian or Alaska Native






Black or African American



Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander



Two or more races



Total minority






Non-resident alien



Race and ethnicity unknown






  The numbers are similar for other universities such as Harvard where, out of 585 JD students in 2011, less than a third were from ethnic minorities (195) and in 2019 less than a third (550) continued to make up the law faculty’s 1,740 students.

The lack of diversity is also reflected across academics and professors, where racism is also evident, meaning BAME students rarely have diverse role models among their professors.

First job barriers

ITR’s research of 26 law firms across 12 jurisdictions to assess diversity at partner level showed very few individuals who could be identified as being part of the BAME or BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) community. Even at the associate level, BAME and BIPOC individuals accounted for less than a quarter of employees.

Across the US offices of one major law firm, out of around 209 individuals across the tax practice only 36 (approx.) were from the BIPOC community. Out of the about 103 partners at the firm, only 10 were non-white. Similarly, at the associate level, only 22% of associates were from a minority ethnic background.

Research in the UK has shown that ethnic minorities face high levels of job discrimination.

Ektaa Kumar, head of tax interim at recruitment company Morgan McKinley in the UK, said the admission rates to universities is having a knock on effect on employment.

“We've traditionally seen comments such as 'educated at a Russell Group university or a ‘'2:1 graduate’ included on job descriptions,” said Kumar. “Around four years ago the recruitment industry orchestrated a seismic shift in respect to advice and, in the hope of capturing a wider candidate pool, decided to strike off the educational criteria on job descriptions.”

When it comes to the BAME community and a tax career, Kumar said the challenge of finding a first job is tough.

“A study conducted by Morgan McKinley into attitudes and perceptions of job seekers showed that 28% of junior candidates applying to tax graduate schemes for the first time felt that they would be discriminated against on the merits of their diverse names. This creates an unconscious trigger amongst candidates who therefore prevent themselves from applying for fear of failure based on the first line of their application,” Kumar said.

However, companies and recruitment agencies are trying to change this.

“A number of our clients have initiated the job seeking process by anonymising candidate names from the consideration process to avoid such unconscious bias,” Kumar said.

Affirmative action

Addressing bias during recruitment is essential, but the bigger multi-layered problems of institutional racism, unconscious bias, and ignorance are tougher to solve.

Many companies, including the Big Four and large law firms, have diversity and inclusion policies but fail to be following them in practice. Companies and their clients need to do more such as publishing statistics, creating safe places to have difficult conversations without accusations of racism and enable change.

Affirmative action, which is a set of procedures used in the US to help eliminate discrimination, is one method that could be more widely adopted by all universities, businesses and government bodies when recruiting and providing opportunities to those who may otherwise be disadvantaged.

One suggestion made by a tax professional, and backed by others who ITR spoke to, is for companies to publish details on how diverse their workforce is. Similar to how companies release details on gender, businesses should be required by law to share employee information by ethnicity. However, as many people from ethnic minority backgrounds are often in low-level jobs, this data should be split into seniority levels. Publicised data of this kind could lead to real change as no company wants to risk reputational damage.

Although initiatives such as affirmative action or positive discrimination have been criticised – because no one wants a job just because they tick the diversity box, but rather for their excellence – the issues have to be managed from both sides. Meritocracy and diversity need to be a combined approach to recruitment and other opportunities.

“If you don't do positive discrimination to start with, are you ever going to get there?” said Mala Kapacee, founder of the London Tax Society (LTS), when speaking at a conference. “It’s about changing the way people think about diversity.”

The term ‘positive discrimination’ may also have to be addressed as it holds negative connotations with some suggesting that it is possible to infer discrimination towards white individuals, when it is in fact attempting to address the conscious and unconscious bias that discriminates against BIPOC.

With some law and accounting firms with white senior leaders saying they are concerned about “diluting the leadership” through such initiatives, implying BAME individuals are less capable than their white counterparts, then maybe these measures can be used to tackle the type of systemic racism the tax sector needs to address.

“I had a lot of debates on race during my time at [a Big Four firm] and [a corporation]. One of the comments I got from the partners was that if we do look to increase diversity at the department director level, we're going to make sure we don't dilute quality,” the UK tax professional said, referring to a conversation he had. “People don't realise what they're saying. Having responses to arguments [like this] is a really good way to re-educate.”

In addition to businesses, it is also up to each individual to stamp out racism. Staying silent when witnessing or experiencing discrimination will not force change. Similarly, it is not up to one group, organisation or individual to make the change. It has to be a collective effort that must begin by changing the attitudes of business leaders, people in authority and, most importantly, by creating opportunities through education and employment that promotes diversity.

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